Going South, Coming North tells the story of Morristown

Morristown, Tennessee may not be the center of the global capitalism, but what has happened to it since NAFTA was implemented pretty much tells the story of the impact that NAFTA and today’s brave new world of unfettered and unregulated capitalism has had on workers on both sides of the US/Mexico border. Morristown: in the air and sun, a 2007 documentary film by Anne Lewis (a fellow TSEU member), tells the story of people who live in Morristown and how their lives have been altered by NAFTA.

Here’s how Anne describes her documentary:

Filmed between 1991 and 2006 and based primarily in the mountains of east Tennessee, Morristown explores the lived experiences of workers from Tennessee and Mexico who speak about their lives, work, disappointments, and hopes. These conversations are combined with scenes in Tennessee factories, fields, union halls, Mexican-owned stores, workers’ homes, city parks, and employment agencies. The documentary travels to factories and locations in Ciudad Juárez, Chihauhau, and Los Martínez, Guanajuato, Mexico. Morristown concludes with a stunning union victory in 2005-2006 among immigrant workers at a large poultry processing plant.”

To tell this story, Anne gathered and shot hours of video footage. But because of the constraints of documentary filmmaking, she had to whittle most of it out of the final version. Thinking that the footage that didn’t make it into the final version might be useful to labor and immigration activists and scholars, Anne and Fran Ansley, her humanities advisor on Morristown, recently published a multimedia essay entitled “Going South, Coming North: Migration and Union Organizing in Morristown, Tennessee” in Southern Spaces that makes available some of the information left out of Morristown.

The essay includes a narrative about the filming of Morristown, a summary of the film itself, video clips, and a list resources, links, and print material that should be useful for those who want to learn more about Morristown and the impact that  NAFTA has had on both sides of the border.

Morristown, located just south of the Virginia border, has been on both sides of the movement of capital and labor. In the 1930s and 1940s, local workers moved north looking for work in the industrial factories. When capital began moving some of these factories south to avoid dealing with unions, some found their way into Morristown.

Eventually capital sought even cheaper labor and began moving much of the work in Morristown across the Mexican border and into the maquiladoras that sprung up like grass after a thunder shower after NAFTA was enacted. But jobs weren’t the only thing that NAFTA exported; cheap agricultural products flooded the Mexican market displacing millions of Mexican farmers and farm workers. They made their way north looking for work, and a good number of them ended up in Morristown where some got jobs in construction, some in the local service industries, and some at a new poultry processing plant owned by Koch Foods.

The new arrivals weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, and Morristown spends some time interviewing locals about their fears and prejudices against the new immigrants. It also looks at a project that began nearly two decades ago to try to bridge the gap between immigrant and native workers in eastern Tennessee, an effort that led to cross border trips by some maquiladora workers to Tennessee and by some native Morristown workers to Reynosa, Mexico, home to hundreds, maybe even thousands, of maquiladoras.

Morristown also tells the story of a successful union organizing drive at Koch Foods. Like most poultry processing plants, the work at Koch is hard, the hours long, and worker safety only an afterthought for the bosses. These conditions led workers at Koch to seek out a union to help them organize. They found the Union of Food and Commercial Workers.

The organizing campaign took more than a year but eventually was successful. They campaign was marked a strong effort to build community support among native workers outside of the plant and a strong organizing committee among workers inside the plant that successfully resisted employer intimidation.

Both “Going South, Coming North” and Morristown present an alternative narrative about the lives of working people that differs markedly from the dominant narrative of today’s discourse. The dominant discourse describes a deep divide between people from different cultures, a divide that can’t really be overcome but only managed through individual acts of kindness and charity. “Going South, Coming North and Morristown on the other hand show that the economic machine that drives people apart can also bring people together when they join together to resist the machine.

California nurses vote “yes” for union

In a vote that was as much about ensuring quality patient care as about bread and butter job issues, Registered Nurses at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California last Thursday voted by a two to one margin in favor of union representation. After a bitter battle in which the employer tried to harass and intimidate union supporters, RNs voted 269 to 149 in favor of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United (CNA/NNU).

“It’s a victory for nurses. It’s a victory for our community and patient care. It’s a victory for everybody in our community who’s  going to come to work here, to have surgery here, to recuperate here, they’re going to have excellent, improved patient care,” said Elizabeth Baker-Wade, an RN at St. John’s.

The union organizing campaign started five years ago when RNs at St. John’s contacted CNA/NNU to express their concerns that St. John’s was endangering patient care by not adhering to California’s strict RN to patient ratio standard and that the hospital’s compensation and retirement plans were substandard.

Largely due to the efforts of nurses in CNA, California passed a law in 1999 that set “minimum, specific numerical nurse-to-patient ratios for acute-care, acute psychiatric, and specialty hospitals.” Nurses fought for this law because they saw first hand the impact that under staffing had on patient care. Their observations have been supported by more than 60 rigorous studies showing that “hospital understaffing results in more patient deaths, plus more preventable complications like pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and medication errors.”

Since the law went into effect in 2004, the nurse-to-patient ratio standards have improved health care. One study conducted by Health Services Research in 2010 found that “hospital nurse staffing ratios mandated in California are associated with lower mortality and nurse outcomes predictive of better nurse retention in California.”

However, hospitals have been fighting the ratio standards since they became law. They almost succeeded when then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004  at the request of hospital owners suspended implementation of the newly passed law. But a court eventually ruled against Gov. Schwarzenegger allowing the ratio standards to go into effect.

More recently, the CNA/NNU organizing campaign at St. John’s hinged largely around giving RNs a voice on the job to ensure that the hospital follows the ratio standards. The RNs organizing campaign was met by “excessive aggression,” said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of CNA/NNU.

The National Labor Relations Board charged the hospital with taking a number of ant-union actions, including spying on union supporters, interrogating union supporters, expelling off-duty, pro-union nurses, who were talking to other nurses about the union, from hospital property, and preventing nurses from wearing  ribbons that read, “RNs for Safe Patient Care.”

St. Johns is owned by the Sisters of Charity Leavenworth Health Systems based in Lenexa, Kansas, which incorporated in 1972 and owns hospitals in Kansas, Colorado, Montana, and California. While the role of the Catholic Church in running the hospital chain has greatly diminished since its incorporation, the hospital system still likes to tout its relationship with the Church.

Unfortunately, the corporation chose to ignore one of the tenets of the Church’s social doctrine that holds that workers have the right to join unions. During the organizing campaign, a number of religious and community supporters of the nurses tried in vain to remind administrators at St. John’s about the Church’s position on workers’ rights.

The pro-union vote came just six weeks after the nurses filed a petition with the NLRB for a union representation election, but the union victory was not an overnight success. It took years of organizing, resisting intimidation, and staying focused on the overall goal of improving patient care.

“This was the most wonderful, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was harder than giving birth, (but) it’s so worth it. ” said Saint John’s RN Lori Hammond.

“I’ve been here for 22 and a half years. I was born in the old St. John’s. This was a yes vote for patients, for fair treatment, for what we’ve gone without for a long time. I’m happy,” said St. John’s RN Donna Schonlaw.

GE, unions begin contract negotiations

Contract negotiations between GE and its two largest unions, UE and CWA-IUE, got underway on May 24 and May 23 respectively. The themes of the two sides’ opening statements are examples of how wide the gap is between labor and capital today–perhaps the widest it has been in 70 years.

John Gritti, speaking for GE at the UE negotiations, emphasized competitiveness and how demands of the market will require concessions from workers. John Hovis, speaking for UE, talked about productivity gains made by GE workers and their right to share in the fruit of their own productivity.

If anyone missed the point. Gritti, who leads the company’s negotiations with UE , told union negotiators that “we will discuss competitiveness often over the next four weeks.”

Gritti pointed out that with unemployment hovering around 9 percent GE workers are facing stiff competition in labor markets. GE recently posted job openings in two of its plants. In Louisville, where GE makes appliances, 10,000 people applied for 300 new jobs; in Erie, Pennsylvania, where GE makes locomotives, 5,000 people applied for 100 jobs. These responses lead GE to believe that their current wage and benefit package is more than adequate to attract new employees.

Competition in the markets for GE products, according to Gritti, is even stiffer, and the volatile nature of these markets means that the company can’t count on its backlog of orders to continue. To keep GE’s prices competitive, GE workers must be willing to accept stagnant wages and cuts to their pension and health care benefits.

GE proposes that the unions accept GE’s high deductible health care plan, which it has already imposed on its non-union exempt workers. High deductible plans require workers to pay thousands of dollars in health care expenses before the insurance plan starts paying for any care.

GE also wants to bar newly hired union workers from participating in the company’s defined benefit pension plan, which provides a guaranteed benefit upon retirement. Currently non-union new hires are not allowed to join the defined benefit plan; instead, they must join a defied contribution plan, whose value is tied to the ups and downs of the stock market.

Gritti said that  other companies have stopped providing pensions that guarantee a lifetime benefit, and GE wants to do the same because of “the potential volatility and unpredictability that these plans can bring to a company’s bottom line.”

Gritti disingenuously warned that “unsustainable wage and benefit plans” forced GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy, ignoring the more salient fact that bad management decisions and dicey loans and poor investment decisions made by the companies’ financial services divisions played a bigger role in their plunging bottom line.

Speaking for UE, General President John Hovis said that the increased productivity of GE workers has made a lot of money for the company and its investors, but increased productivity has not translated into better living standards. For this contract, UE would be seeking increased benefits, better pay, and an end to the company’s two-tiered  night shift differentials and  progression schedules.

“We come to the table with proposals of our own,” Hovis said. “Confident that in light of the indisputable fact that GE  workers remain among the best and most productive in the entire world, we should be rewarded as such.”

Hovis said that GE’s gross profits for 2010 totaled $14.2 billion ranking it the 6th largest among Fortune 500 companies and that recently GE rewarded stockholders with their third dividend increase in the past years. Last year GE workers produced an average of $42,000 per worker in net profit.

The UE and CWA-IUE contracts expire on June 19, which gives the two sides about four weeks to work through these difficult issues. GE will negotiate local contracts with workers in other unions.

Hovis ended his opening remarks by calling GE’s attempt to seek concessions when the company and its investors are making huge profits an act of “overreaching,” which makes reaching an agreement that “is reasonable, respectful, and mutually beneficial” for both parties difficult. “To say the next four weeks will be challenging is an understatement,” Hovis said. “We in UE will put forth our best effort at finding a way to avoid having these negotiations end in a place I believe neither party desires. We sincerely hope the company will do the same.”

Judge rules against Wisconsin anti-worker law

A Wisconsin circuit judge in Madison today ruled that the Wisconsin Senate violated the state’s Open Meetings law when it passed a law last March that deprives most Wisconsin public sector workers of their right to collective bargaining. Based on her ruling, Judge Maryann Sumi issued a permanent injunction to halt implementation of the law.

“This morning Judge Sumi upheld what we knew in the beginning, that the law stripping hundreds of thousands of public employees of their rights was passed illegally, in the dead of the night through a back door maneuver,” said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO.  “The people have been clear from day one; they have stood together in the streets of Madison and in the streets around the state to express that this law is too extreme for Wisconsin.  Today, democracy was upheld.  We hope that the Supreme Court will consider the careful review conducted by Judge Sumi and support her conclusion.”

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will hold a hearing on June 6 to determine whether it will consider an appeal challenging Judge Sumi’s decision. Republicans hold a majority of seats on the state Supreme Court.

Judge Sumi last March issued a temporary injunction that temporarily halted implementation of the bill after a suit was filed charging that the state Senate had violated state Open Meeting laws when a Senate committee convened an emergency hearing on the bill.

Gov. Scott Walker in February sent a budget repair bill to the Wisconsin Legislature that in addition to increasing the amount that state employees contributed to ther health and pension plans took away the right of most state, county, and municipal workers to bargain collectively. It also barred the state from collecting dues for unions, a practice performed by most employers whose workers belong to a union, and required public sector unions to hold representation elections every year.

Scott’s so-called budget repair bill set off a wave protest that saw the state Capitol occupied by union members and their supporters;  hundreds of thousands of people also took to the streets for a month-long protest against Gov. Walker’s anti-worker proposal.

Fourteen Democratic state senators left Wisconsin to prevent the quorum needed to pass Walker’s proposal. On March 9, lawmakers following Gov. Scott’s orders stripped the budget repair bill of just about everything except the language that barred public sector collective bargaining. Doing so,  reduced the quorum standard to a simple majority.

The House quickly passed the stripped down version of the bill and sent it to the Senate. That night at about 4:20 p.m. a Senate committee posted a public notice that it would hold a hearing on the bill. At 6:00 p.m. the committee began the meeting. Sen Peter Barca, the lone Democratic senator at the hearing, objected that the meeting was in violation of the Open Meetings law because the law requires that public notices for emergency meetings like this one be posted at least two hours before the meeting convenes.

Judge Sumi ruled that by ignoring the state’s Open Meetings requirements, lawmakers rendered their subsequent action invalid. “The legislators were understandably frustrated by the stalemate on March 9, but that does not justify jettisoning compliance with the Open Meetings law,” wrote Judge Sumi in her ruling. “Moreover, if there is any doubt as to the committee’s awareness of its violation, one need only read the transcript of the committee’s March 9 proceedings.”

Scott Walker and the Republicans broke the law that night,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, Wisconsin State AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer.  “This is a democracy, not a dictatorship, and Judge Sumi’s decision today makes it final that the union busting bill was passed illegally and will not stand.”

The Civil Wars in US Labor: A Review

In The Civil Wars in US Labor published by Haymarket Books, Steve Early tells the story of an internal upheaval that cost the labor movement dearly in blood, sweat, and treasure. It affected millions of workers and will continue to do so in the years to come, but most of us know little or nothing about it.

The book covers a two-year period between 2008 and 2010 when SEIU members fought each other for control of locals, SEIU and other unions fought each other to represent workers who were already organized, and SEIU and other unions sabotaged each others campaigns to organize non-union workers. A truce has stopped the war; the body count is ongoing.

The war began when former SEIU president Andy Stern began implementing his vision for a new labor movement. For Stern, union growth was paramount even if it meant making concessionary deals with employers. Some of his opponents balked at change and were leery of organizing, but others complained that Stern’s organizing-at-any-price strategy lowered contract standards and his top-down management style undermined union democracy.

Most wars have a winner and a loser; this one had only losers. Take for instance, those involved in the fight between SEIU’s leadership and the United Healthcare Workers (UHW), a 150,000 member SEIU local in the San Francisco Bay area. UWH president Sal Rosselli had been an open critic of Stern, arguing that Stern allowed contract standards to erode. He also wanted the rank-and-file to have more input in contract negotiations.

When UHW leadership and members opposed Stern’s decision to move 65,000 UHW home care workers into a local based in Southern California, SEIU put the local in receivership, fired local staff, and removed local leaders. UWH responded by breaking away from SEIU, creating the National United Healthcare Workers (NUHW), and fighting SEIU to represent workers it represented before trusteeship. For the right to represent workers who were already organized, both unions spent $30 million, money that could have been much better spent organizing the unorganized or fighting employer attacks.

A fight with SEIU’s Change to Win partner UNITE HERE cost even more. Stern grew impatient with UNITE HERE for not organizing more workers. When UNITE HERE president John Wilhelm resisted Stern’s advice to seek strategic partnerships with employers that would allow more access to unorganized workers, Stern and former UNITE president Bruce Raynor set up Workers United and began raiding UNITE HERE shops. The eventual divorce that settled the dispute between UNITE HERE and SEIU cost about $40 million.

There were other losers. Low-paid home care workers in Southern California had their local’s treasury looted by a Stern appointee, put in charge of the local because of his loyalty to Stern’s program rather than his competence or integrity. Member input and participation went by the wayside when Stern put more than 80 locals in trusteeship, some because of mismanagement but many more because local leaders didn’t back Stern’s program. Organizing campaigns like the one at Hyatt Hotels received less attention and others were scuttled because of inter-union fights.

The biggest loser was David Smith, an SEIU member from Detroit. He boarded a bus to Ann Arbor to participate in a demonstration against union busting, or so he was told by SEIU staff. The demonstration was really against Rose Ann DeMoro, president of the National Nurses Organizing Committee, who had spoiled an SEIU organizing drive in Ohio and was speaking at a Labor Notes conference in An Arbor. SEIU staff led a charge to interrupt DeMoro’s speech. The charge led to a melee. The excitement was too much for Smith’s heart. It failed. He died.

Early glosses over DeMoro’s questionable role in Ohio as he does a similar action in Arizona by UNITE HERE. Future accounts of this civil war may correct this oversight. But Early never claims to be disinterested. In fact, he is candid about his viewpoint as a partisan observer.

For his sources, he relies heavily on interviews with participants in the struggles he describes. By and large, those he interviewed were Stern opponents. To Early’s credit, he tried to interview Stern and other SEIU leaders; most turned him down. That was a mistake because Early did a good job of allowing pro-Stern leaders to present their side when they agreed to talk to him.

Tom Balanoff president of Local 1 in Chicago and his staff presented a good case for why call centers, or Member Resource Centers as they’re known in SEIU, were a good way for his local to handle grievances and other member services. Call centers are one of Stern’s innovations; Early doesn’t like them.

Early ends on an upbeat note. It’s possible, Early says, that the fallout from SEIU’s top-down approach to union building will spark a backlash that will encourage more union democracy and more member participation and initiative. But before he’s done, Early engages in a bit of red baiting by comparing SEIU’s leadership to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He tries to cover himself by invoking the work of Rosa Luxemburg and Alexandra Kollantai, two early 20th century revolutionary communists. But this particular criticism sounds too much like those of right-wingers and their liberal counterparts when they attack those of us on the left.

Explosion at plant making iPads kills three in China

An explosion last Friday at a Chinese factory that makes Apple iPads killed three workers and injured 15 others. The factory, which employees about 100,000 and is located in Chengdu, is owned by Foxconn Technology Group, a subsidiary of Taiwan-based Hon Hai Precision Industries Ltd, the world’s largest manufacturer of electronic equipment. Foxconn in China also manufactures electronic devises for HP and Dell.

The blast took place in the polishing department. A preliminary investigation by the company blames the explosion on combustible dust in an air duct. A report issued May 6 by a Hong Kong-based group called Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM) cited the build up of aluminium dust at the Chengdu plant as a critical concern of Foxconn workers  interviewed for the report.

Foxconn gained notoriety last year after it installed anti-suicide nets around worker dormitories at its Shenzhen plant after seven workers in separate incidents in May leapt to their deaths from dormitory windows. In all, 13 workers at the plant have committed suicide since the plant opened.

The deaths put pressure on Apple and Foxconn to take steps to improve conditions at Foxconn plants. Some improvements were made; for example, Foxconn raised worker pay, but according to SACOM’s report, conditions at Foxconn plants remain grim.

“Life at Foxconn is work, sleep, eat,” one male Chengdu worker told SACOM investigators. The workday begins at 8:30 in the morning and is supposed to end by 6:20, but workers are often forced to work overtime. The report says that Foxconn workers work about 80 to 100 hours of overtime a month, much more than the 36 allowed by the Chinese labor law.

The SACOM report also says that although the basic wage for Foxconn workers is 9 percent higher than the Chinese minimum wage, it is still well below what SACOM estimates to be the local living wage. In Chengdu, the basic monthly wage is 1300 yuan. The living wage, the amount needed to survive beyond the subsistence level, is, according to SACOM, 2600 yuan.

The lack of health and safety at the Foxconn plants is also a problem. “Occupational health and safety issues at Chengdu are alarming,” reads the report issued two weeks before the explosion. Workers work with dangerous chemicals but receive no training for how to handle them.

Workers also said that the plant’s ventilation system is poor. “I’m breathing in dust at Foxconn just like a vacuum cleaner,” said a male worker. “My nostrils are totally black every day.” Workers in the polishing department, where the May 20 explosion took place, complained they were always breathing in aluminum dust because the ventilation system was so ineffective. Workers in the milling machine department had the same complaint.

Perhaps the worst thing about working at Foxconn is that workers “feel helpless (about bringing) change,” which in turn leads to the feeling of resignation and despair. There is no grievance procedure or other means for workers to express their concerns about safety and other work related problems. There is no way for the workers to keep from being forced to work overtime.

Last January worker frustration in Chengdu broke out when Foxconn miscalculated pay for many workers, a common complaint according SACOM. Workers began throwing bottles and rubbish out their dormitory windows to express their rage. Police were called in, and 20 were arrested. Foxconn asserts that the disturbance was a clash between two groups of workers. SACOM and the workers it interviewed blamed the company’s wage miscalculation.

SACOM and its international partners have called on Apple and Foxconn to improve conditions at the latter’s plants. The suicides last May spurred some action, but most of it was a PR blitz aimed at showing the world’s press that conditions at Foxconn were humane. The explosion seems to belie this claim.

Saudis balk at paying domestic workers minimum wage

The Philippine government said that it would suspend the processing of labor contracts with Saudi Arabian employers who hire domestic workers because the Saudis refuse to pay Filipino workers the $400 a month Philippine minimum wage. The Philippine government also wants assurances that Saudi employers provide humane working conditions for Filipina domestic workers.

About two weeks ago, the Saudis sent a delegation to the Philippines to negotiate the dispute, but talks recently broke off. The Saudis want the Philippine government to alter a requirement in labor contracts that Saudi employers must sign before hiring Filipina domestic workers. The contract requires foreign employers to pay the Philippine minimum wage of $400 a month. The Saudis wanted to reduce this amount to $200 a month.

The Saudis also balked at language in the contracts that requires employers of domestic workers to provide family information and the layout of the residence where the domestic worker will be working. The Philippine government requires this information to ensure that workers will be treated humanely.

Even though talks have broken down, the Saudis want the Philippine government to continue to process the employment contracts so that they can continue to hire Philippine domestic workers. “They continue to press us not to impose the ban (on processing work contracts), citing their political role in peace negotiations in the southern Philippines (with Muslim rebels) and threaten to cut our oil supplies,” said Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz.

One of the reasons that the Philippine government has stopped processing the labor contracts is that Saudi employers and Philippine employee recruitment companies often collude to circumvent the contracts. In some cases, a Saudi employer will require a domestic worker to sign a new contract that reduces her wage to $200 a month after the worker arrives in Saudi Arabia. The Philippine government is willing to start processing the contracts, but it wants assurances that the terms of the contract will be respected.

A report issued earlier this year by a Philippine government investigation mission found that in addition to receiving wages below the Philippine minimum wage, Filipina domestic workers are also subject to abuse and inhumane treatment by their employers. The report says that non-payment of wages is a constant complaint from Filipina domestic workers in Saudia Arabia. Of those interviewed by the investigation team, 26 percent said that they weren’t paid for months on end.

Those interviewed also said that beatings were common and some said that they were kept under lock and key. “Slavery was abolished in 1962 (in Saudi Arabia),” reads the report. “But customs are apparently hard to overcome. Domestic workers continue to be treated as slaves in royal and aristocratic households, and the behavior is reproduced by those lower in the social hierarchy.”

A number of Filipina domestic workers also report that they have been the victim of rape, sometimes within the household where they work, sometmes outside of it. “Many domestic workers are cast in very oppressive conditions, . . . where physical abuse and rape are rampant,” says the report. “It is fair to say that the (investigators) found that the conditions faced by domestic workers to be worse than they had imagined.”

There are between 100,000 and 150,000 Filipina domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Until recently, the Philippine government processed about 13,000 domestic worker contracts with Saudi employers a year. Of those, 9,000 were renewals of contracts that expired, the rest were new contracts.

Vincinte Cabe, the labor attache at the Philippine Consulate in Jeddah, said that his government would like to reconvene the negotiations with the Saudis, but he said that the Saudis must agree to protections that afford Philippine immigrant workers the same rights and protections they have in their home country.